PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Public Participation, Public Power: PennFuture’s Community Land Use Process Guidebook

by Brigitte Meyer, Staff Attorney

Is This You?

Picture this: You have just learned of a significant land development proposal in your municipality. Maybe it’s a massive distribution center, a sprawling resort, or a new shopping center. Or, maybe you heard rumors that your neighbor plans to convert their property into an Airbnb or a wedding venue. Maybe you learned of these things only after construction started and wish you’d known sooner. Or, maybe you want to be proactive and ensure that future land use and development in your area is rational and serves the needs of the community. Maybe you just want to better understand who decides what gets built where and how those decisions are made.

If this is you, PennFuture’s latest resource–Public Participation, Public Power: A Community Guide to Local Land Use Decision-Making in Pennsylvania–is for you! This guide is designed to give Pennsylvanian residents the knowledge and tools they need to understand and effectively participate in local land use decision-making processes. 

We get it–local government can seem opaque and perplexing. With a variety of government bodies making numerous types of land use decisions in multiple types of proceedings (not to mention arcane public notice requirements!), it’s no wonder that the public often feels left in the dark and without a voice. PennFuture aims to change that, because we believe that robust, informed public participation in local land use decision-making is vital to protecting our environment and our communities. 


Land Use is an Environmental Issue

Most of us intuitively understand how land use and development impact the character of our communities and our quality of life. What may seem less obvious is just how much appropriate management of land use and development is vital to protecting the natural environment. Where and to what extent land development occurs dictates the amount of impervious surface on the land, which in turn impacts water quality in nearby ground and surface waters and the amount of habitat available to wild plant and animal species. Sprawling land development patterns force longer, more frequent vehicle trips, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants, as well as the amount of impervious road surface required to connect destinations. Even agricultural uses (not commonly thought of as “development”) can result in loss of native habitats, increase wind erosion, limit the amount of water available for other uses, and degrade water quality by introducing pesticides, fertilizers, and nutrients from animal manure into water sources.

Intelligent and informed regulation of land use and development is key to controlling environmental impacts, and intelligent and informed public participation in local land use decision-making is key to appropriate regulation. 

In Pennsylvania, the power to govern land use and development resides almost entirely at the local level. Local governments have substantial power to control where land development can occur, the amount of impervious surface that may be constructed on any given parcel, the physical dimensions of structures, their relationship to neighboring properties and environmental features, and the level of public review required for each use. And local residents have substantial power to influence these decisions, if they know how. That’s where PennFuture can help.


What the Guidebook Offers 

Public Participation, Public Power is a comprehensive guide to the various local bodies engaged in land use and development decision-making, the types of decisions that are made, and the processes and legal requirements governing those decisions. It includes:

  • Explanation of the state and local laws that control land use decision-making and why that decision-making is based in those laws, not public opinion;
  • Advice on how to find and read local land use ordinances;
  • Descriptions of the various types of land use decisions that local governments make, the different local bodies that make them, and the processes and legal standards governing them;
  • Guidance on where and how to find information about upcoming land use decisions;
  • Information about your right to participate in local decision-making and tips on how to make effective and persuasive public comments;
  • Tips on participating as a party in local hearings, including advice on presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and arguing your position;
  • Advice on how to advocate for changes to existing land use ordinances;
  • Information about the Right to Know Law and how to use it to obtain written records from local agencies;
  • Quick-reference Fact Sheets for understanding and participating in each type of local land use decision; and
  • A glossary of land use terms.

This new community guidebook will be available for download and in print on April 23–Earth Day!

PennFuture is excited to provide this resource to help individuals, groups, and organizations across the Commonwealth effectively participate in local land use decision-making. Take a look and find out how YOU can enhance your power to make a difference for your community and the environment! 

Additional Land Use Resources:

If you’re interested in supporting PennFuture’s work, please consider becoming a member today.

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up